The teenagers slid into chairs, slipped off earphones and stared at questions printed in a language they could barely understand.
What is “fiction”? What is a “folk tale”? What is a “fairy tale”?
Henry Garcia, one of two dozen students in Classroom A-305 of the T.C. Williams High School International Academy in Alexandria, Virginia, set down the assignment, rubbed his forehead and yelled, “Mister!” — summoning teacher Onelio Mencho Aguilar, 27. Coffee in hand, shrugging away the drizzly gloom one Monday morning in December, Aguilar walked over.
“Fiction,” the student said in English, before switching to Spanish. “That’s stuff that didn’t really happen, right?”
It’s a question Aguilar often faces about his own life story.
Aguilar immigrated to the United States from Guatemala at age 13, traveling alone and speaking only a language, Mayan mam, known to just half a million people. The journey was arduous, the arrival not much better.
Friendless and disoriented, Aguilar spent months crisscrossing the country, seeking sanctuary. At times homeless, always hungry, he worked odd jobs. Eventually, he found his way to Virginia and enrolled at T.C. Williams High, where patient instructors taught him Spanish, English and a newfound love for learning.
But, lacking adult support and a stable home, unable to work full time and make all his classes, the teen foundered. He missed rent payments, homework and sleep.
T.C. Williams staffers saw something was wrong. They stepped in to offer food, comfort and an introduction to a social worker, who placed Aguilar in foster care.
“The support they gave me, I felt really loved, and I hadn’t experienced that in my whole life,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar went on to graduate from T.C. Williams with a 3.6 GPA (and a green card) and later earned a spot at Marymount University. Now, with college degree in hand, Aguilar has returned to his old high school as a teacher.
Working alongside some of the same men and women who mentored him, Aguilar teaches immigrant and international students English at the academy, which caters exclusively to students from other nations who have a poor or nonexistent grasp of English.
“He can speak to these students firsthand: ‘I was in your shoes, and I had these obstacles, and I overcame them.’ It’s so powerful,” said Patricia Gordon, a veteran T.C. Williams educator who still remembers teaching English to Aguilar.
Aguilar said he sees himself in the crop of ninth- and 10th-graders he instructs — in English and Spanish. One recent Monday, he glanced around the room at pupils hailing from Honduras, Bolivia, El Salvador, the Philippines, Guatemala. He listened to their laughter, their mingled Spanish and English.
He gripped his coffee and gave his answer.
“It’s a classification,” he told the student, speaking in English. “For a type of story that is not real.”
His, however, is.
Aguilar adored his Guatemalan birthplace.
He remembers Aldea Monrovia as a small town filled with sunshine, close-knit neighbors and loving parents. That lasted until Aguilar turned 5, when his father left the family, forcing his mother to move Aguilar and his two siblings to another town.
“After that, life was really challenging,” Aguilar said. “My mom was trying to raise us by herself, working all the time. I was trying to go to school and taking care of my siblings — then other things happened that were really, really bad.”
His new neighbors “hurt” Aguilar, he said, declining to go into detail because the memory is still too painful. He became determined to leave and go somewhere far away, somewhere safe: the United States.
As soon as he finished sixth grade, Aguilar quit school and started working in the corn fields to save money to pay for his journey. After a year, he’d amassed 800 quetzals, the equivalent of just over $100. He didn’t know for sure but figured that was probably enough to pay for bus tickets and passage across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Aguilar kissed his mother goodbye. He’d celebrated his 13th birthday four months before.
“That journey was crazy,” Aguilar said. “I did whatever I had to do to get from point A to point B.”
He walked, took the bus, scored rides from strangers. He risked dismemberment by jumping onto a fast-moving train.
The trip lasted a month: Aguilar ate whatever he could scrounge and slept any place the ground seemed level. Once, he lay down amid tombstones in a cemetery.
Ever-present was the fear he would be caught by immigration officials and sent back to Guatemala.
“When I think about it now as an adult, for a 13-year-old to just leave home and risk himself doing all of that … ” Aguilar paused. “It’s bit of a miracle I’m still here.”
Aguilar wound up in Los Angeles, where he worked in construction until he was fired when employers realized his true age. Stymied on the West Coast, he made his way to the Washington area, where he’d heard a cousin lived — only to be greeted by his father.
Aguilar hadn’t spoken to his dad since age 5. He knew his father had immigrated to the United States but he didn’t know where. At first frustrated, uninterested in reconnecting with the parent who’d abandoned him, Aguilar gradually built a life in Virginia.
That life centered on T.C. Williams High.
“All I really knew was I wanted to stay in school — no, I needed to stay in school,” Aguilar said.
One morning, he woke to devastating news: His father was moving back to Guatemala. Starting 10th grade, Aguilar was stuck in an apartment he could not afford, in a country whose language he hadn’t mastered, in a situation that recalled the childhood he’d sought to escape.
Aguilar was abandoned. Again.
Saved by teachers
It took T.C. Williams teachers a while to learn the truth.
Aguilar tried to hide it, he said, part of a broader desire to avoid talking about his personal life. Gordon, one of his English teachers, recalls Aguilar’s reserve as a student. She sometimes suspected he was struggling, but refrained from asking for specifics.
Besides, the teen always put on a good show.
“I remember thinking of him as much like Oliver Twist, someone who is hard-pressed economically but still manages to be a positive person and get through life despite a very difficult plate of circumstances,” Gordon said.
After his father’s departure, “difficult” became impossible.
Consumed by worries about food and rent, Aguilar stopped finishing assignments and found himself unable to pay attention in class. Finally, a teacher sent him to see parent liaison Guadalupe Silva.
“She was smiling, laughing, I felt comfortable — and then she started asking me how I was doing,” Aguilar said. “And somehow she got me talking.”
That confession led to all the rest: a foster home, high school graduation, a degree in English literature from Marymount. For a while in college — which he paid for by working the overnight shift at IHOP — Aguilar thought he’d pursue a career as a lawyer.
Just after graduating from Marymount, Aguilar put his law dreams on hold to accept a job as a substitute teacher at the academy. T.C. Williams High, which opened in Alexandria in 2011 and is one of roughly two dozen of its kind nationwide, serves 660 students.
The teaching job was supposed to last only for a couple of months, a stopgap measure until Aguilar finagled his way into a law firm, then law school.
“Then I realized: These students are like me,” Aguilar said. “They’re newly arrived immigrants who struggle in school because of the language, and sometimes with more than that.”
He paused. “I just wanted to be that teacher, the kind of teacher that helped me — I knew I could, that I had to be that person for them.”
Aguilar abandoned lawyering for teaching. He was hired for a full-time position at the start of the 2015-2016 school year, and — though he loathes grading — has never second-guessed the decision.
Aguilar stays after school to help immigrant students, remaining in his office hours past closing time. He assists with school assignments, acts as a translator and eases teenagers through difficult moments by detailing his own experiences.
Leonel Naves, a 16-year-old 11th-grader who emigrated from El Salvador a few years ago, said Aguilar is easier to trust than other teachers.
“Hispanic students pass through a lot of stuff, [but] Mr. Onelio was in the same position,” Naves said.
Aguilar remembers how he felt as a student. He knows what to watch for, when to retreat, when to prod.
In the classroom one recent Monday, he bent over Eddinson Quevedo and asked for the third time. “I know you have a good answer to this — come on, what’s your answer to this, here?”
Aguilar pointed to the paper, where black font demanded: Why are fictional stories important in a culture? Quevedo spun his pencil, shrank into his dark hoodie. He looked at the floor, then at Aguilar.
“When it’s dark at night,” he said, “they help the children feel less afraid.”